"Don't f—k with my old bitch, it's like a bad fur/ Every industry n—— done had her/ Shook the tree like a pumpkin just to smash her/ B*tch is breaking codes, but I'm the password."
It might not be classy to trash-talk your ex, but trash-talking your ex after one of your main claims to fame is that you violently beat her up is apparently the formula for music chart success. The "smash her" line is the coup de grace here – an onomatopoeic punch to both warn other guys that his ex has had (too much) sex, and a trigger back to the fact Brown once, well, smashed Rihanna’s face in.
Chris Brown’s fifth album Fortune hit the UK chart number one spot this Sunday, marking the full rehabilitation of Brown’s career after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna on the evening of the 2009 Grammys. In the excitement, Brown’s fans took to Twitter en masse as #TeamBreezy to celebrate Brown’s return: amongst their assertions that "Chris Brown can hit me any time" and "I don’t know why Rihanna complained" were the more worrying – for seeming to be more legitimate – arguments that Brown is "sorry" (a claim invalidated largely by his continued classic-abuser positioning of himself as a victim of "smears") or that Brown was very young in 2009, and grew up in a tough environment (that may be so but I think “he had a bad childhood” grows old quickly when a grown man’s strangling you until you start losing consciousness).
Rihanna’s evolving response to what happened in 2009 was evoked to further brush Brown’s abuse under the carpet, particularly the fact she collaborated with Brown on a single earlier this year. And as Brown reaches number one, Rihanna is actually used to distract from what Brown did. This goes beyond Chris Brown’s attempts, in his recent music, to slut-shame Rihanna for having a sex life – because when you can no longer control a woman with violence, you at least have recourse to the good old-fashioned tactic of branding her a ‘slut’. It extends to the opprobrium Rihanna receives for the work she’s produced since the 2009 Grammys: while her "Love The Way You Lie" video, exploring the emotions of a toxic relationship, was accused of ‘soft porn-ifying’ abuse, her video for 2011’s "Man Down" was criticised for ‘glorifying’ female violence because it shows a woman’s response to rape. It’s Rihanna, not Brown, who faces the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ of public scrutiny.
This focus on Rihanna (particularly the "if she can forgive him why can’t you?" line familiar to anyone who’s dealt with domestic violence) and foregrounding of her ambiguous response distracts from the focus on the unambiguous brutality of Brown’s actions in 2009. After all, can you think of a less subtle act than smashing a woman’s face against a car window? How Rihanna deals with what happened is her prerogative, but that it should eclipse the bare facts of what Brown did seems convenient for abuse-apologist #TeamBreezy.
The debate about whether Rihanna’s musical collaboration with Brown ‘rehabilitates’ his public persona may seem like a dilemma unique to Universe Celebrity, but it is based on a mundane truth: domestic violence is both complicated and simple. It’s about unique intimate dynamics and it’s also about crime, clear lines unacceptably crossed. How the media handle the public and the private in this is crucial to what messages society receives about domestic violence. A decade ago, football fans made excuses for Paul Gasgoine’s violence against his partner on the grounds that they supported him as a footballer, not what he did off-pitch. A similar line is being evoked by #TeamBreezy, while Brown breaks the ‘privacy’ by continually publicly justifying himself. And this is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Chris Brown’s public rehabilitation: it utilises the patriarchal ‘private sphere’ switch-and-bait to both minimise and legitimise violence against women.
When you’re rapping about your ex in the vein of “don’t fuck with my old bitch, it’s like a bad fur”, the already-flimsy Gazza-argument that the work for which you’re renowned is removed from your ‘private’ violence seems unconvincing; yet in the media spotlight it’s Rihanna whose every move is fair game for criticism. The sham act of policing sexual propriety that manifests in the media’s mock-concern for Rihanna’s ‘dignity’ when she expresses herself sexually is not only part of a reactionary positioning female sexuality as dangerous (making yourself seem "available" will get you beaten up) but also plays into the machismo that legitimises Brown’s violence (after all, it doesn’t matter what you do to a whore, does it?).
As Rihanna is chastised for expressing her sexuality, Brown’s violence – and his lyrics relating to violence – are positioned variously as the preserve of the ‘private sphere’ and ‘artistic licence’. It’s a double-standard of privacy in favour of male violence "behind closed doors" that’s so embarrassingly obvious it puts Henri-Levy’s bizarre 2011 defence of Strauss-Kahn as a "friend of women" to shame.
Because that’s another thing about domestic violence: it’s behind closed doors. The recent domestic violence awareness campaign by make-up artist Lauren Luke was so powerful because it bound an everyday, intimate act – Luke putting on her make-up, which her fans are used to watching – with the fact that every day women use make-up to cover their bruises. Women’s abuse is largely hidden; saying its irrelevant when a public figure commits it contributes to this silencing.
Chris Brown’s comeback, and the media who are glossing over his past abuse, send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career – you can turn it into bravado, along the lines of “bitch be breaking codes but I’m the password”, or, à la Strauss-Kahn, you can cite the "private sphere" defence: win win. Either way, it’s the right of women to live lives in which they can express themselves, safe from violence, that is lost.
Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie